What is Filial Therapy?
Filial therapy is a type of at-home therapy for children of ages 4-9 involving routine play sessions with one parent. At that age, children do not process their experiences through language the way older kids do; instead, younger children think of toys as symbols, untangling their emotions through choices during play sessions. Due to young kids' psychological inability to reflect otherwise, play is a primary opportunity for them to get relief and make sense of their thoughts and feelings. Filial play therapy is simply a play session for the child while the parent observes this reflection process. This method of observed reflection is beneficial in many ways; not only does it significantly strengthen the child's relationship with their parent, but it is also very easy for the parent to set up and initiate.
How to Begin
To get started, I recommend the parent find a list of play therapy toys through Google and order about ten. Keep them in a blanket in a closet to ensure that they are only used during what will be referred to as “special playtime with (Mom/Dad).”
Kids will soon learn that special playtime lasts for about 20 minutes. Filial therapy should ideally begin with the parent saying: “You're about to begin special playtime with (Mom/Dad) with special toys. During special playtime, you can do almost anything you want with these toys. If there is something you may not do, I’ll let you know. And before it is time to end, I will let you know. When it is time to end, I will say 'It’s time to stop.' When I say that, I will close the toys in the blanket and put them away. Then, you and I will go do other things until the next time we have special playtime. Agreed?" (Most likely, your child will agree.)
To begin the playing, open and lay out the blanket, spread out the toys and sit down. You should make no further choices throughout the session. Your child will run it completely, unless they do something they may not do; however, they likely will not.
Perception and Reflection
Your eyes should always be focused on your child --- listening, observing, and noticing. Some of the most important details to consider are facial expressions, body language, intensity, level of interest, and choice of toys. Aim to perceive the decisions, thought processes and feelings that may be exhibited through your child's behavior; if you observe any, put what you see into words for them. For example, include your child's apparent emotions in your reflection with comments such as “you are pleased to see that monkey," “you feel happy playing with that ball,” or “you think that three-headed thing is scary.”
By doing this, you are reflecting both your child's behavior and the emotions they are exhibiting, thus enabling them to work on any issues they have. This is an important way kids at that developmental stage process the contents of their mind.
Although your child will undoubtedly be acutely aware of your attention and of every move you make, and will feel high self-esteem during the play session, they will not give you any hints of this. However, they will correct you if your reflection misrepresents their thinking. If this occurs, just replace what you said by reflecting their correction, and it will not interrupt their work.
Throughout the session, resist the urge to say anything besides these reflection comments, and take special care to avoid suggesting anything. If they attempt to engage you to join them in play, stay silent and simply do whatever they instruct (as long as it is safe and acceptable). If they do something unacceptable, say, “Remember when I told you that I would let you know if there is anything you may not do?" (Your child will most likely affirm this statement.) "Well, ____ is something you may not do." (You can expect them to say "okay" and move on.)
Benefits of Filial Therapy
In the moment, some parents may not fully recognize the immense importance of this undivided and connected attention while allowing the child to lead while the parent simply observes and comments. The positive effects of filial therapy are truly a gift; you will be amazed at all your child does and what you will learn about them. This quiet harmony of playing amidst simple observation and commentary reduces the pressure felt by the parent as well as provides benefits to the child, granting them plenty of uninterrupted processing time. As recurring sessions of filial therapy are conducted, both you and your child will begin to truly enjoy and benefit from special playtime more than ever, and your bond will continue to strengthen and deepen.
The rules above provide your child with a structure that includes a few regulations and boundaries while still maintaining incredible freedom within these limits. Your child will feel secure as long as you conduct therapy sessions in the exact same way every time, as this sense of consistent structure will comfort them. This system presents the perfect psychological environment for a young child; it sets expectations, yet simultaneously sets them free. They are provided with plenty of freedom and possibilities to explore, while still benefiting from the structure and boundaries they require to maintain a sense of comfort and security.